Friday, August 23, 2019

Downhill They Ride (1966) review


Pat Ting Hung (Cui Ying), Paul Chang Chung (Hsiao Kai), Huang Chung Shun (Zhu Jing Xu), Wang Hsieh (Hei Hu), Wen Ling (Sha Li Bai), Wei Ping Ao (Ding Si Bao), Ma Ying (Big Brother Hong), Shen Lao (He Lian Long)

Directed by Pan Lei

The Short Version: The first Eastern Western is a modestly entertaining romp written by King Hu (COME DRINK WITH ME) and directed by drama specialist and popular lyricist Pan Lei. Basically, it's a Magnificent Two helping out a town in need of rescue from a gang of burly bandits. There are better examples of Chinese-style western shoot'em ups, but, this being the first, both writer and director create a serviceable, if forgettable, start for what is essentially a sub-genre of Chinese curios.

Two wanderers meet after encountering horse thieves and decide to travel along together. Just passing through the town of Lao Long Gou, they learn the village is oppressed by a gang of mountain bandits led by the burly Big Brother Hong. After a tense run-in with some of the bandits, the two gunfighters decide to stay and help fortify the town and the surrounding grounds with traps for when the desperadoes return.

European westerns enjoyed several years of international popularity due in large part to Sergio Leone's DOLLARS trilogy. The genre eventually faded due to market saturation and its replacement by the burgeoning Kung Fu genre out of Hong Kong. But prior to that, Hong Kong filmmakers--primarily at Shaw Brothers Studio--produced several movies that blended the western with a Chinese sensibility. The first of these was Pan Lei's DOWNHILL THEY RIDE, released in February of 1966. Unlike some of the other examples of this peculiar mix, Pan's movie owes more to the American west than the Italian interpretation of it.

More fanciful than frigid, you won't find the anti-heroes of the Euro version of the old west; nor any John Wayne stoicism. Pan Lei's Eastern simply has the feel of an old fashioned Hollywood western. There's some violence and even a few bloody scenes in the usual Shaw Brothers tradition, but a jovial atmosphere dominates. The exact year is vague, but the time period is sometime in the late 1930s. The town the film centers around is basically one big happy family; as penned by writer King Hu.

Essentially 'The Magnificent Two', King Hu packs his script with plenty of characters but little characterization. The feeling of the genre is there, but not its heart. Curiously, a couple of the secondary characters have an air of mystery about them that would've been better suited for the two leads whom, sadly, are out of their element for this type of movie; otherwise, it's a standard gunplay drama with some humor thrown in.

King Hu found great fame as a director with his iconic swordplay drama COME DRINK WITH ME (1966); released a few months after DOWNHILL THEY RIDE. His second directorial effort after SONS OF THE GOOD EARTH (1965), he would go on to even greater success with DRAGON INN (1967); and especially A TOUCH OF ZEN in 1971, a swordplay picture that received great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975. A revered filmmaker, he seemed to go downhill, in a manner of speaking, once he went out on his own--escaping the confines of the studio system. His body of work was eclipsed by his colleagues like Li Han Hsiang and Chang Cheh, and is often overlooked in favor of those two aforementioned filmmakers. Hu's work is more appealing to the art house crowd than the commercial one.

Shot during the winter months in Taiwan, the crew filmed on Mount Snow, the second highest mountain in Taiwan, some 3,000 feet above sea level. While the film itself is an average, mildly entertaining diversion, the photography is staggeringly attractive in the many wide shots caught in Hung Ching Yun's camera. Of particular note are the shots high atop the mountain with the clouds below the actors.

Director Pan Lei was quite successful with romantic movies and as a novelist and song writer. He would never be viewed as an action director, but he could hold his own in that genre when assigned to it; THE FASTEST SWORD (1968) being an astonishingly adept, dramatic sword picture despite its relative obscurity even among HK action film fans. Still, action was not Pan's strong suit, and he possibly wasn't all that interested in it. DOWNHILL THEY RIDE falls somewhere in between his dramas like SONG OF ORCHID ISLAND (1965) and LOVE WITHOUT END (1970); and something like PURPLE DARTS (1969), one of the few Wuxia pictures he helmed. Possibly due to the director's indifference to the material, the gun battles of DOWNHILL barely pass muster with everyone's aiming abilities consisting of throwing their arms outward whenever they fire a shot.

Paul Chang Chung was a very popular lead actor at the time but he's not right for this type of role. He did a fine spy in THE GOLDEN BUDDHA (1966); with romances and certain parts in swordplay dramas suiting him well, but playing a gunfighter was not a great fit. Like many popular actors, Paul Chang eventually branched out into directing. With swordplay epics saturating the markets in the early 70s, Paul had the desire to do a modern day action picture. Planning to shoot in September of 1971, it wasn't till 1973 that his directing debut appeared in the form of DEATH COMES IN THREE, a thriller about a Chinese man seeking revenge on the Japanese who murdered his parents in WWII. Among his many other credits, Paul had a small role as Inspector Koo in the international co-production, THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU (1967), shot at Shaw Studios. 

Around the time he made DOWNHILL THEY RIDE, Paul Chang was romantically connected to Ivy Ling Po. He would later marry erotica starlet Hu Chin in 1975. Paul's brother, Chang Sum, was a filmmaker and sometimes actor. Some of his works include the exploitation flick BALD-HEADED BETTY (1975); and Kung Fu pictures like KUNG FU MASTER NAMED DRUNK CAT (1978), SNAKE IN THE MONKEY'S SHADOW (1979), the rare Shaw Brothers comic KF caper EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF (1980), and DAGGERS 8 (1980).

Huang Chung Shun co-stars as Paul Chang's friend he meets on the road. Possessing a visage put to better use as villains in movies like A TASTE OF COLD STEEL (1970) and PURSUIT (1972), Huang fails as a protagonist in Pan Lei's Eastern. He's afforded even less of a presence than Paul Chang; the latter of which is given a romantic interest with Pat Ting Hung that, like the rest of the ensemble, goes nowhere. However, celebrated filmmaker Cheng Kang did co-direct Huang in a believable heroic capacity in the Shaw ZATOICHI clone, THE WANDERING SWORDSMAN (1968).

Chinese westerns is something that doesn't really roll off the tongue, but some examples are quite good, and even better action-wise than their Anglo counterparts. Other Eastern Westerns include the rare Shaw-Korean co-production THE BANDITS (1967/1971); Chang Tseng Chai's bandit epic REDBEARD (1971) and his action-packed revenger THE FUGITIVE (1972); Chu Yuan's exceptionally dramatic THE VILLAINS (1973); and Chang Cheh's revolution Eastern THE ANONYMOUS HEROES (1971) and fan favorite THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974). One of the more popular titles was another Shaw co-pro with Italy and the US titled THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER (1975), starring Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh. KUNG FU BROTHERS IN THE WILD WEST (1973) is an independently made, and inferior mix of East and Europe that satisfies neither audience.

There's benefits to seeing the first Chinese western, but these will be best appreciated by Shaw Brothers fanatics, HK film history buffs and western enthusiasts curious of an Asian take on the material. Casual fans or even curiosity seekers will find nothing to interest them here. If you're expecting visceral thrills, DOWNHILL THEY RIDE will be an uphill battle for many viewers.

You can purchase a copy HERE. Running time: 01:45:26

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Blackout (1978) review


Jim Mitchum (Dan Evans), Robert Carradine (Christie), Belinda Montgomery (Annie Gallo), June Allyson (Mrs. Grant), Jean Pierre-Aumont (Henri Lee), Ray Milland (Richard Stafford), Don Granberry (Chico), Terry Haig (Eddy), Victor B. Tyler (Marcus)

Directed by Eddy Matalon

The Short Version: A modestly entertaining quasi-disaster thriller, BLACKOUT's major, if unlikely, selling point is the unpredictably terrifying performance of a pre-REVENGE OF THE NERDS Robert Carradine. A few grueling scenes of sadism and a wild and woolly gun battle n' car chase finale provide thrills for a film that could've used more of them. With that said, everything else in between drags when it needs to be frantically paced. Scenes of people working together in a crisis should provide stark contrast against the brutalism of the four killers, but these bits, too, are a letdown as they lack any emotional investment. BLACKOUT (debuting on blu-ray in its uncut version) flickers intermittently but manages just enough juice in its bulbs for a mildly satisfying 90 minutes.

A group of disparate criminals led by Christie, a psychotic political activist, escape police custody when the van transporting them crashes during a city-wide blackout. The quartet of crazies mingle among the looters before terrorizing and murdering occupants of a ritzy high rise apartment complex. Meanwhile, a lone cop stumbles upon the police van wreckage and traces the killers location in an attempt to stop them during the Blackout.

On July 13th, 1977, a series of lightning storms caused a near city-wide blackout in New York City that lasted 25 hours. In that time, thousands of stores were looted and dozens of buildings burned resulting in thousands of arrests.

Eddy Matalon's BLACKOUT is based on that grueling ordeal but only scratches the surface at capturing the chaos of that days-length of darkness and hysteria. Actually, Matalon has trouble keeping viewers riveted with far less time at just 90 minutes in what should've been an intense, gripping pseudo-disaster thriller. There's just enough set pieces to make BLACKOUT worthwhile, only not the 4-star suspenser the real-life occurrence demands of it.

The main source of electricity in the movie is the chilling performance of Robert Carradine as Christie, a domestic terrorist. The pre-REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984) star played a few creeps in films like JACKSON COUNTY JAIL (1976) before essaying nicer guys in ORCA (1977) and the aforementioned NERDS series. In BLACKOUT, Carradine's character is despicable and made all the more horrifying in that the actor doesn't look threatening at all. For some, his slight stature might come off as an unbelievable presence for a main antagonist. In the place of an imposing physical presence, Carradine's character is charismatic yet calculatingly evil.

A mentally damaged man who feels society owes him something, Christie sees faults in virtually everyone who enjoys life. From what little the script reveals of his past, Christie would seem to take his deranged frustrations out on those he feels should suffer for his own poor life choices.

Easily becoming the leader of three other escapees, the quartet prefigure a similar gruesome foursome in Jack Sholder's cult horror favorite ALONE IN THE DARK (1982). Moreover, one of Matalon's crazies is a hulking strongman akin to Erland van Lidth's lumbering maniac of Sholder's movie. The most flagrantly psychotic of Christie's band is Chico, played in over-the-top fashion by Don Granberry, of DEATH WEEKEND (1976); a Canadian thriller where he acted in similar capacity.

Some of the attack scenes are filmed with little attempt at building suspense. Others, though, are more successful; such as the film's most harrowing moment when Christie delivers a speech about the uselessness of keeping the sick and weak alive after ransacking an elderly couple's apartment. The husband living his last days on a breathing machine, Christie calmly questions, "Who says he has to breathe?" In a scene that rivals a similar one in the underrated 1982 slasher VISITING HOURS, Christie pretends to let the couple live, but casually returns and shuts off the old man's life support.

Another strong moment is when the gang get inside the apartment of a kindly, lonely old man (played by Jean Pierre-Aumont); a magician whose best friend is his dog. Christie and Chico feign kindness to the elderly man, questioning him about his life. When he says something that reminds Christie of his father, they relish in the man's final moments as his dog whines while watching his master pass.

James Mitchum (son of Robert) is the opposite of electrifying in his unenthusiastic performance as the policeman who ends up combating the villains in the high rise. The script doesn't really give him a lot to do and what there is, Mitchum sleepwalks through much of it. When the film finally plugs itself into an outlet during the finale, you're reminded the movie has a protagonist after all.

Mitchum does get juiced up during the exciting finale where he and Carradine duel to the death in a remarkably energetic gun battle/car chase combo inside a parking garage. If only the rest of the movie harnessed the nitro of the ending sequence, BLACKOUT would have been a far more memorable thriller.

The actor is a much better showcase in movies like Albert Band's Italian western THE TRAMPLERS (1965); and MOONRUNNERS (1975), the inspiration for THE DUKES OF HAZZARD television series (1979-1985).

The Oscar winning actor Ray Milland is the biggest name in the cast. In BLACKOUT, he plays Richard Stafford, a man of wealth with an affinity for fine art. When Christie and his gang invade his apartment, he finds the way to torment Milland is not to harm his wife, but burn his art collection. 

Partial to up-scale Hollywood productions during his early years, Milland's later days had the occasional B efforts like THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972), FROGS (1972) and THE UNCANNY (1977); or even D efforts like THE SEA SERPENT in 1985. One of Milland's best is his starring role in Roger Corman's SciFi classic X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES (1963).

The movie itself might not be as engaging as it could be, but many of the principals behind the camera were involved in genre work that was in varying capacity. Director Eddy Matalon helmed the obscure 'possessed child' movie, CATHY'S CURSE (1977) prior to making BLACKOUT. It was his only horror feature.

Ivan Reitman, a name many will recognize, was an executive producer and, years before directing such high-profile comedies like MEATBALLS (1980), STRIPES (1981), GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) and TWINS (1988), directed or produced horror movies. Directing the quirky CANNIBAL GIRLS in 1973, Reitman later produced Cronenberg unpleasantries like SHIVERS (1975) and RABID (1977); as well as the underrated rape-revenge thriller, DEATH WEEKEND (1976).

Writer John Saxton pseudonymously penned the notorious ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE SS (1975); the overlong slasher thriller HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981); and the inventive cult thriller favorite CLASS OF 1984 (1982).

With exteriors shot in New York City, the bulk of BLACKOUT was filmed in Canada. The movie does manage to capture just enough of the NYC atmosphere of the day to make you forget you're watching a movie primarily lensed in Canada.

BLACKOUT struggles to keep the lights on, but manages to flicker to the end with some intermittent scenes of sadism and one amazing gun battle and car chase at the finale. If only other elements of the movie were as fully charged, BLACKOUT's status as an obscurity might not have kept the picture in the dark all these years since its release.

This review is representative of the Code Red blu-ray. Specs and Extras: New 2018 HD master of the uncut version; 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen; interview with Robert Carradine; audio commentary with actress Belinda J. Montgomery; trailer; running time: 01:31:50

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Robowar (1988) review


Reb Brown (Major Murphy "Kill Zone" Black), Catherine Hickland (Virginia), Massimo Vanni (Private Larry "Ditty Bob" Guarino), Romano Puppo (Corporal Neil Corey), Max Laurel (Quang), Jim Gaines (Sonny "Blood" Peel), John P. Delaney (Alfred "Papa Doc" Bray), Mel Davidson (Mascher), Unknown actor (Lieutenant Martin Woodring)

Directed by Bruno Mattei (as Vincent Dawn)

The Short Version: Italian bandwagon master Bruno Mattei directs Reb Brown and others to do their best Sylvester Stallone impersonations against a cyborg wearing a motorcycle helmet in ROBOWAR, an awful PREDATOR and ROBOCOP copy. Mattei's sense of unintentional humor shines even in the stifling heat of the Filipino jungle where mercenaries never run out of bullets nor worry about actually aiming at whatever they're shooting at. Next to HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), this has the biggest cult following of the director's works. Its fans will love it even more with this 4K restoration from Severin. Those with a tolerance for terrible movies will get a kick out of it; everyone else will likely find this more of a ROBOBORE.

An elite squad of anti-guerrilla experts dubbed BAM (Big Ass Motherfuckers) are hired for a vague 2-day mission to rescue hostages held captive on an island by a Central American military force. What they don't know is, their real mission is to see how well they handle themselves against a military-created, cyborg killing machine dubbed Omega One that's gone rogue deep in the Filipino jungle. Armed with an array of firepower, the military wishes to keep the renegade robot soldier a secret.... at all costs.

Without American blockbusters, Italy's genre output in the 1980s would have been slim pickings indeed. Bruno Mattei's career--built on clones of whatever was popular in the United States--would likely have been very different as well. To watch his pictures, you'd think his contract stipulated he would not be delivering a good movie, but an entertainingly stupid one; and that's what ROBOWAR is.

For the most part, Mattei's movies are impossible to take seriously. Like Umberto Lenzi, Mattei has a signature style that is unmistakable. In Mattei's case, it was displaying an eagerness for uninspired filmmaking paired with excruciating dialog that almost always ended up vapidly appealing. Even so, Mattei (frequently directing under his oft-used pseudonym Vincent Dawn) has a loyal fan base that appreciate his work for just how brazenly awful his films are. Rarely has a filmmaker wallowed in mediocrity and it played to his advantage.

In contrast, WOMEN'S CAMP 119 (1977), an early title on the director's resume and one of the numerous Nazi atrocity subgenre of Italian exploitation cinema, is astonishingly well made when compared to his later pictures. It was like it was the work of another director. Competency would go out the window for Mattei a few years later when he'd find his calling making movies that were lively, yet brain-dead clones of other, better movies. The absolute nuttiness of the gore-drenched HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) is his best known production globally, establishing Mattei's uniquely vacuous style celebrated in many of his intellectually barren pictures that followed; ROBOWAR among them.

Rossella Drudi's mechanical script is efficient at counterfeiting its sources--mashing highlights of both PREDATOR and, to a lesser extent, ROBOCOP, into an incredible lack of originality that only the Italians would attempt back then. Dialog is what you'd expect although not nearly as consistently hand-to-chalkboard as something like Mattei's laugh-infested RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR (1984). Drudi worked on many of Mattei's movies, frequently collaborating with her husband Claudio Fragasso, Mattei's confidant and frequent co-director.

Other than some surprisingly good photography by Richard Grassetti, there's virtually nothing else of genuine quality to be found. For those expecting it, gore is minimal, and mostly restricted to a few melted bodies and skin-stripped corpses courtesy of brothers Francesco and Gaetano Paolocci (THE BARBARIANS [1987]; AFTER DEATH [1989])

To be fair, ROBOWAR plays much better in the Italian language version; which is slightly different from the English dubbed track in relation to sound effects and lines of dialog. 

For lovers of unintentionally funny movies, though, what's bad about ROBOWAR is what's good about it; delivering some chuckle-worthy antics typical of Mattei's work....

The script labels the soldiers-for-hire as the haplessly named BAM--an acronym for Big Ass Motherfuckers. Thankfully, they're referred to as BAMsters only once. Dopiness abounds in scenes of the mercs firing indiscriminately at anything that moves while seemingly in competition to see who can do the best Rambo yell; Reb Brown drawing attention to both himself and his group by screaming his lines; ROBOWAR's clone of PRED's Billy character holds a snake right at the base of the head to somehow decapitate it with a machete--the loss of his hand is saved by a distraction at the last second; the Omega-One cyborg fires lasers into the air but in the next shot they're coming downward into their targets; cringe-worthy attempts at one-liners; and home movie-level recreations of scenes from PREDATOR (1987) all work in the film's favor.

The action scenes are energetic but goofy with everybody firing their machine guns in a rapid, horizontal motion. The limited hand-to-hand action is surprisingly good--filmed in a way that foreshadows the over-the-top, under-cranked zombie attack in 1988s wacky ZOMBI 3 (also shot in the Philippines). Stuntman and actor Massimo Vanni gets to show off the most--his uncanny resemblance to Chuck Norris in full military regalia recalls Cannon's Braddock MISSING IN ACTION movie trilogy.

As fortuitously inept as Mattei's movies turn out, the man had a knack for corralling surprisingly spirited action sequences that was reminiscent of the hyper-kinetic brilliance of Hong Kong's unique daredevil style of action filmmaking of the time period.

Romano Puppo (see above) does double-duty as both Corporal Corey and the cyborg nemesis, Omega-One. Someone else wears the costume in one scene where it's required for both to be onscreen at once. It is said co-director/writer Fragasso wore the costume but he denies this. Decked out in shoulder pads and a motorcycle helmet, it looks nothing like either the Predator or Robocop. It does, however, bear more than a passing resemblance to the supernatural street racer avenger in THE WRAITH, a minor cult item from 1986. The robot's vision is similar to the Predator, only heavily pixelated like an old Atari video game; the silly electronic noises the robot makes (only on the English dub) are about as threatening as a Texas Instruments Speak and Spell.

The connection to ROBOCOP is foreshadowed early on, but comes into bloom during the finale when Reb Brown discovers he knows more about this cybernetic killing machine than he realizes. According to writer Rossella Drudi, there's a fleeting nod to ALIENS (1986) in the form of a treacherous character assigned to tag along with the heroes-for-hire to keep tabs on how they stand up in battle with the robot hunter.

American actor Reb Brown returns to Bruno-land, having previously screamed his way through Mattei's napalm-fueled RAMBO 2 clone, STRIKE COMMANDO in 1987. Reb had been acting since the early 70s, first appearing as a bully in the underrated king cobra cult horror SSSSSSS (1973). He's most well known for starring as Captain America in two Made For TV movies in 1979; and co-starring alongside Gene Hackman in the hit action-war film UNCOMMON VALOR (1983). Brown found himself periodically employed overseas headlining silliness such as YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983) and LAST FLIGHT TO HELL (1990).

Catherine Hickland is the other name in the cast. Famous as a soap star in America, she was known for those same roles in Italy, too. Hickland's character doesn't add much to the movie; she's basically playing a Caucasian version of Elpidia Carrillo's role in PREDATOR.

As bad as the movie is, everybody seemed to be having a blast in spite of the heat and dangers indigenous to the Filipino jungles. Occasionally dull and frequently insipid, ROBOWAR (1988) has a sizable following in cult film circles; but till now, was unavailable in a quality presentation. Severin's restoration is better than this sort of picture would ever expect to get. If you're familiar with Mattei's filmography, then that alone will be enough to know if ROBOWAR is the sort of movie you wish to hunt down for your blu-ray collection.

This review is representative of the Severin blu-ray. Specs and Extras: 4K scan of the original negative; 1080p HD 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; Italian/English options; English subtitles; seven interviews with cast and crew; Catherine Hickland's behind the scenes home movies; trailer; bonus soundtrack CD limited to the first 3,000 copies; running time: 01:30:43

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